Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In the Rearview Mirror: Curtis Turner, the Babe Ruth of stock cars

Curtis Turner HoF Headshot
Curtis Turner, one of NASCAR's first drivers and
once called the "Babe Ruth of Stock Cars."
Babe Ruth is a legend is baseball. To be compared to him is an honor fitting of few, but that was the headline to a 1968 issue of Sports Illustrated featuring Curtis Turner. Looking back at NASCAR’s history; Turner was among the fastest and most colorful of NASCAR’s earliest drivers.


Curtis Turner was a member of  NASCAR's 1949 inaugural season when the series ran a total of eight races. Turner won early in his career, in fact it was only his sixth start when he won at Langhorne Speedway on September 11, 1949. In his first season Turner accumulated one win, one top-5, and four top-10 finishes. and finished the season in sixth overall.


CTurner_car
Credit: Motorsports Images and Archives
The 1950 season brought four wins for Turner. Two races were won consecutively after starting from the pole, Rochester and Charlotte, and this remains a record intact to this day.

Career highlights:
  • Founding member of NASCAR. Attended the meetings at the Streamline Hotel in which the sport became founded on the discussions that occurred. 
  • Was the only driver to win 25 major NASCAR races in one season driving the same car in each of them (in 1956 — 22 were won as the No.26 car in the convertible division. The other three, including the 1956 Southern 500, were with a top attached to the same car.)
  • The only driver to win a major NASCAR race that was red-flagged because his car was the only one still running (Convertible series race at the Asheville-Weaverville, North Carolina track on September 30, 1956.)
  • The first driver to qualify for a NASCAR Grand National race at a speed greater than 180 miles per hour (1967 Daytona 500, driving #13, a 1967 Smokey Yunick Chevrolet.)
Turner and Bruton Smith partnered together to built Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960 although later he was forced out of the partnership. Everything about CMS was Turner’s idea; the concept, design, and initial financing all came from Turner.


After thinking about NASCAR from a business angle, Turner along with Glenn “Fireball” Roberts and Tim Flock, sought to develop a union for the drivers. The Federation of Professional Athletes sought insurance for drivers, improved safety, and a bigger purse from races. After enlisting a majority of the drivers the idea was sent to Mr. Bill France. France did not react well; stating, “before I have this union shoved down my throat, I will plow up my two-and-a-half-mile track in Daytona Beach and plant corn in the infield.” The drivers gave in and France sanctioned two of the organizers, Turner and Tim Flock, banning them for life.


Four years later (1965) the ban was lifted following some legal action and as an attempt to mend fences. Driving sporadically through 1968, Curtis Turner ended his career with 183 career starts which included 17 wins, 73 top-10s and 16 pole awards. Having driven for the elite teams of the Wood Brothers, Junior Johnson, Smokey Yunick and Holman-Moody; Turner was in the best equipment at the time, though he never won a championship.


After retiring from racing Turner focused on his lumber business, Tragically he died in a plane crash on October 4, 1960 near Punxsutawney, PA. Turner and golfer Clarence King (also killed) were flying in a plane piloted by Turner and crashed shortly after take off.


NASCAR By the Numbers and In the Rearview Mirror (looking back at NASCAR's history) are Amanda's two weekly columns with Skirts and Scuffs, but as an Associate Editor her duties are limitless. Amanda also strives to provide exclusive interviews for the readers of Skirts and Scuffs. To read her past columns and interviews click here. Feel free to contact Amanda via Twitter.

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